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Life

“I checked into a ‘heartbreak hotel’ to get over my break-up – this is what I learned”

Can a retreat that aims to heal heartbreak really help someone move on from the worst year of their life? Blindsided by a sudden break-up, Stylist’s Christobel Hastings checks in…

I’m sitting in a semi-circle of 10 people in a spacious conference room at a country park hotel. Beyond the arched stone windows, the trees in the courtyard are dappled with sunshine. All is quiet, save for the scratching of pens on notepads and the gentle sounds of classical piano. It would be a picture of peaceful study were it not also for the muffled but unmistakable sound of sobbing.

I am gathered with these 10 strangers, people in their 30s through to their 60s, on this spring weekend because we are part of a club that none of us wanted to join: we have all recently experienced the end of a relationship and have travelled from all over the UK to attend a break-up recovery retreat hosted by Sara Davison, otherwise known as The Divorce Coach. Over the course of two days, we will discover if we can get our lives back on track.

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It’s somewhere I never thought I’d end up. But in August last year, my loving girlfriend of three years suddenly announced on our holiday that she was unsure whether she had the time or headspace for a relationship. Over the weeks that followed, I was drip-fed a catalogue of grievances that had apparently given her pause to rethink ‘us’. Two months later, after repeatedly being denied the chance to see her or work things out, she left London due to family issues. It was the last time I would see her.

Blindsided by the way the love of my life had walked away without a backwards glance and still missing a decent explanation for what had transpired, I was left utterly broken. The weight dropped off me, I stopped talking to everyone and spent every working day longing for 5.30pm to come so that I could crawl back to bed and cry myself to sleep. Then, four months later, just before my 30th birthday (on Valentine’s Day, no less), I discovered that she had, in fact, been seeing her former housemate for quite some time; a woman I had socialised with on multiple occasions. I was shocked, disgusted and devastated on so many levels it felt as though a hole had been punched through my chest. When I left the house, I would end up crouching down on the pavement in pain. At night, I would wake up shaking with terrors. 

Ashdown Park
Sara Davison's 'Heartbreak Hotel' is hosted at Ashdown Park Hotel in East Sussex

As the weeks went by, I tried to shift the feeling that I was trapped in a bad romcom. I drank double the amount of water, went to bed early, forced myself outside for daily walks, blasted upbeat music, went to counselling, sent long voice notes to my friends and diligently journaled (shout out here to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages). But despite my best efforts, I would open my eyes every morning in total disbelief that the person who had professed their undying love for me had sauntered off with someone else as if I’d never existed. Which is why when the opportunity came up to check into a ‘heartbreak hotel’, I was intrigued as to whether this could be the key to helping me move on from the worst year of my life. 

Checking in to heartbreak

I had no idea what lay in store. Hosted at Ashdown Park Hotel in the heart of the Sussex countryside, the immersive two-day workshop seeks to provide a relaxed and safe environment in which people can learn to cope better with the end of a relationship. Whether you’re newly single, stuck in a toxic relationship, suffering from betrayal or struggling to break cyclical relationship patterns, the retreat aims to equip people with tried-and-tested tools to deal with the fallout of their break-up. The promise of a brighter future comes with a price tag, though: the retreat costs almost £1,000 without factoring in accommodation or travel. The stakes feel high, and just like the feeling you get when you receive a job offer and keep schtum until the contract is signed, sealed and delivered, I don’t tell anyone that I’m attending. I want so badly for it to work.

Sara Davison
Sara Davison, otherwise known as The Divorce Coach, runs the breakup recovery retreat

Walking into the conference room on Saturday morning, I’m greeted by a cheerful woman who hands me a name badge. Inside, there are men and women of all ages, as well as five coaches who, I learn, will be on hand to support us on our journeys. There’s a definite sense of trepidation in the air, but mingling over coffee and pastries gives way to an easy camaraderie.

After introductions, Sara shares the story of her own heart-wrenching divorce before asking us to share what we want to achieve from the weekend. As we go around the room, the grief and trauma is palpable. One woman’s marriage of 42 years ended two weeks ago, another’s husband flies to Switzerland every month to conduct his affair. One person describes their ex-partner as “a conman” who has turned her children against her; another, who has been betrayed, says tearfully that she has come along for some “courage” – and I feel a lump in my throat. My story is one that many others are sadly well acquainted with.

It soon becomes clear is that we are all experiencing the same emotions: betrayal, rejection, disbelief, depression, grief – and the first thing Sara asks us to do as a group, is to address them. This day, we learn, will be a “clearout” of negative emotions that prevent us from moving forward. When we confront them head-on, she explains, we can “dial them down, take back our power and move through them”.

And so we set about powering through the grief cycle. Armed with a workbook and tissues, we brainstorm the painful baggage that haunts us on a daily basis. Sara then asks us to immerse ourselves in our top three negative emotions before walking one by one over to a shredder and blitzing our lists into shreds. The idea is to give ourselves permission to let go and practise “building muscles” that shift our negative emotions to positive ones. While I’m not sure I feel any lighter, I’m on board with the idea of replacing my disempowering behaviours with positive ones.

Heartbreak Hotel
Entertainment editor Christobel Hastings checked into the 'Heartbreak Hotel'

Throughout the afternoon, we roadtest a range of other techniques designed to help us face our despair. In one exercise, we’re asked to envision a negative emotion in our body, then draw it out like an imaginary stake and replace it with a colour that feels happy to us. In another exercise called “flip it”, we try to find a silver lining to a bad situation. Later, we list the negatives aspects of our relationships that we don’t have to suffer anymore. I find this especially difficult because I wasn’t in a relationship with a toxic individual and attempting the list reinforces what an overwhelmingly decent person my ex-girlfriend was. When we were together, at least.

What I do find useful, however, is when Sara moves on to coaching us about heartbreak. She reinforces the idea that we fell in love with our partners for who they were, not who they are now – and that the person we’re still attached to doesn’t exist anymore. It’s something that I’ve found especially hard to grapple with in the aftermath of my break-up because there were no red flags that suggested my person wasn’t committed to me, our relationship and our future. Just a week before the unthinkable happened, for instance, she had sent me a beautiful card in the post telling me that I was the literal woman of her dreams. I ask Sara if it is helpful that I have been reminding myself of my ex’s shocking Jekyll and Hyde behaviour that emerged in the aftermath; the upsetting things that can’t be unseen, the cruel words that can’t be taken back. She agrees that it is helpful. After all, and I underline this in my workbook, “people don’t show up on the first day as they do on the last”.

Just before the day draws to a close, we are offered a one-to-one session with a coach of our choice. I choose a friendly woman who, during her morning introduction, had explained that she had been betrayed during her marriage. “You need to bring the feel-good back into your life,” she gently tells me. It’s a shrewd observation, and it’s not the first time I’ve been told it. Doing the work to heal can take up so much headspace that it’s easy to forget you need downtime, too. Speaking of which: that night, despite feeling wrung out, I have dinner in the hotel restaurant with one of the other delegates, Sadie*. While we joke about the ironic romantic candlelight and pianist playing love songs nearby, we discover that we have a lot in common.

Heartbreak Hotel
Dinner for one at the 'Heartbreak Hotel'

Finding the spark again

When Sunday morning arrives, I can barely lift my head from the pillow. I feel emotionally exhausted, but after breakfasting with another delegate, I perk up. Today the focus is on moving forward and the workshop kicks off with a talk from two guest speakers, James and Claire Davis, aka The Midlife Mentors. Having both experienced divorce, the pair found each other later in life and started a business coaching people to improve their mind, body and emotional wellbeing. They talk about the tools that can help our recovery, such as the importance of nutrition, hormones and keeping a positive mindset. The idea of all this, essentially, is that we put the emphasis on helping ourselves. And though I’m not at the midlife stage yet, it is helpful to have a preview of it from people who have taken good care of their holistic health. They also put a sobering question to us: what would the future look like if we did nothing

After a brief coffee break, Sara takes the reigns again. We’re told that we can change the way we feel by switching up our physiology, language and focus – and so we pair up with a ‘buddy’ and practise acting out both a negative and positive state of mind. The insights from my buddy are fascinating: they clock the way I clutch my side and ball my fists when I’m sad and, conversely, the way my eyebrows wiggle and how the light in my eyes changes when I smile. We also learn that the questions we ask ourselves determine the quality of our life and practise shifting our focus when we start slipping into negative thoughts. As Run The World and Thank U, Next play in the background, we all stand up in a circle and practise switching from a slouch to standing tall and shouting ‘yes!’ at the top of our voices. And you know what? Acting more cheerful than I feel actually does lift my mood. Forget fake it till you make it: this is fake it till you feel it.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, and after lunch, I head outside with Sadie for an impromptu photoshoot and we end up in fits of laughter. My good spirits continue when I head inside for the last session, where a whiteboard gift-wrapped in a purple ribbon awaits us. This afternoon, Sara tells us that we’re going to focus on “getting our spark back”. We brainstorm three things our best friend loves about us (surprisingly tricky when you’re put on the spot), five things that we’re good at and the things we’re excited to do now that we’re single. The idea is to “create a future you’re excited to live”, Sara adds, and so using we start creating vision boards. Here, we are able to see all the ways we want to redesign our lives on one page, from our careers and leisure time to health and personal growth. For me, that’s learning a new language, buying my first house and writing a book. Sara also asks us what song makes us feel happiest, and as we cut, paste and scribble, my request comes on: Earth, Wind And Fire’s September. When I look around the room, I see happy, smiling faces. One woman who was in tears the day before dances joyfully beside me. It’s quite the transformation.

Then suddenly, it’s 5.30pm and the retreat has ended. As we each share our takeaways from the weekend, I feel surprisingly emotional, especially when our little break-up retreat family starts dispersing. Back at home, I find it hard to maintain a positive mentality at first. I know, though, that many of Sara’s techniques do have the potential to help me when I have processed my pain. Little by little, I am piecing myself back together and returning to the woman I used to be.

Chrissie
Stylist's entertainment editor Christobel Hastings

The greatest and most unexpected gift from the retreat, however, was community. And in the weeks that follow, the WhatsApp group we started to stay connected becomes an invaluable source of support. There is something immensely powerful about being connected with people who are also going through similar trauma in real-time, without having to feel apologetic or misunderstood. Through the good days and the bad, my new friends are always on hand to offer solidarity, and their updates also show me that their horizons really are expanding: book clubs, spontaneous daytime cinema trips and a brand new car that one woman has bought all by herself in what she joyfully describes as a “milestone”. Two people are even training to become coaches now so that they can make a difference to others who are struggling in the aftermath of traumatic break-ups.

It is in these messages that I have found hope. Often, when our spirit is crushed and everything we have built and loved is in ruins, we have no imagination for anything new. But on the days when my past weighs heavy on my mind, I’m only one message away from friends who provide solid proof every day that the sun does indeed rise again, and there is life on the other side of heartbreak. If you’re reading this in a similar place, know that you’ll get there one day, too.

To book onto Sara’s next Breakup Recovery Retreat, 1-2-1 coaching or for your free trial of Sara’s weekly online support group, visit www.saradavison.com. You can also find more information about Sara’s next live event, Heartbreak to Happiness Live: With Sara and special expert guests in London on Saturday 16 July.

Images: Sara Davison; Ashdown Park Hotel; Molly Saunders.